74 U.S. 506 (1869), argued 2–4 and 9 Mar. 1868, decided 12 Apr. 1869 by vote of 8 to 0; Chase for the Court, Wayne had died. A product of the often-strained relations between the Supreme Court and Congress during Reconstruction, the McCardle case posed fundamental questions concerning Congress's ability to use its authority over the Court's appellate jurisdiction to curb judicial independence.
In late 1867, army officials responsible for administering Reconstruction in Mississippi arrested William McCardle, a Vicksburg editor, charging him with publishing libelous editorials that incited insurrection. Invoking the authority conferred by the Reconstruction Act (1867), they ordered McCardle tried by military commission. The editor challenged the government's action, asserting that Ex parteMilligan (1866) precluded military trial of civilians when the civil courts were open and that the Reconstruction Act was therefore unconstitutional. Relying on the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867, which directed federal courts to issue writs of habeas corpus in cases involving persons who were confined in violation of their constitutional rights, he sought relief in the United States circuit court. When that tribunal rejected his argument, McCardle invoked a provision of the Habeas Corpus Act allowing the Supreme Court to hear appeals in habeas corpus, bringing the politically explosive question of the Reconstruction Act's constitutionality before the high court.
Republican leaders in Congress feared that the Court might strike down the act and destroy the party's Reconstruction program. Consequently, in March 1868, after the Court had heard arguments but before it had rendered a decision, Congress struck at the Court's jurisdiction by repealing the provision of the Habeas Corpus Act allowing appeals to the Supreme Court. Although Justices Robert C. Grier and Stephen J. Field wished to decide the case before Congress enacted the repeal, the majority rejected such a course. With the end of the Court's term approaching, the justices agreed to hold the case over until the next term.
When the Court issued its opinion, it bowed to Congress, dismissing the case for want of jurisdiction without passing judgment on the Reconstruction Act. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase pointed out that the Constitution provided that the Court was to exercise its appellate jurisdiction “with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make.” Because Congress possessed express authority to make exceptions to the Court's appellate jurisdiction, he continued, the 1868 repeal measure was constitutional, regardless of Congress's motive. Consequently, the Court had no jurisdiction to hear McCardle's appeal and must dismiss the case.
Although sometimes viewed as an example of the Reconstruction Court's supineness, McCardle actually suggests its resiliency. In concluding his opinion, Chase pointedly noted that while Congress had repealed the provision of the Habeas Corpus Act on which McCardle had relied, this did not affect the jurisdiction that the Court possessed under other statutes. This was a thinly veiled reference to the Judiciary Act of 1789, which authorized the Court to issue writs of habeas corpus to persons held under federal authority. Several months later, in Ex parte Yerger (1869), the Court agreed to hear a challenge to the Reconstruction Act brought under the 1789 statute by a Mississippi civilian who was charged with the murder of an army officer and held for trial by a military court. Although the Court again failed to reach the merits, its willingness to accept jurisdiction suggests that it had not been overawed.